CHICAGO — R. Kelly’s voice had been heard a few times in three weeks of testimony at his Chicago federal trial: crooning one of his biggest hits at the 1998 Grammys, rapping on a music video, and allegedly cajoling his then-14-year-old goddaughter to perform sex acts on tape.
But it wasn’t until Thursday that Kelly himself spoke in court, lowering his face mask to tell U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber he understood his right to take the stand — or not — in his own defense.
“No — I’m not going to testify,” said Kelly, who remained seated at the defense table in a gray suit.
It is rare for a criminal defendant to testify in federal court. It would have been particularly dangerous for Kelly, given the nature of the child pornography and obstruction of justice charges he faces and the cross-examination he surely would have had to endure.
Still, his decision to remain silent marked a key moment as attorneys for Kelly and his two co-defendants began presenting their cases to the jury Thursday. While jurors were not in the courtroom when Kelly announced his intentions, they will be instructed later that they are not to hold it against him.
It also became the third time that the disgraced R&B star has declined to take the witness stand in a criminal trial involving sex crimes. The previous two times had two very different results.
He previously invoked his right to silence in his 2008 trial in Cook County on child pornography charges, which ended with a stunning acquittal on all charges. Thirteen years later, Kelly again declined to testify in a federal racketeering case brought in New York, where he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Kelly, 55, is currently on trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on an indictment charging him with 13 counts of production of child pornography, conspiracy to produce child pornography and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Also charged are Kelly’s former business manager, Derrel McDavid, and employee Milton “June” Brown, who are accused in an alleged scheme to buy back incriminating sex tapes that had been taken from Kelly’s collection and to hide years of alleged sexual abuse of underage girls.
McDavid, unlike his former boss, told Leinenweber on Thursday that he does intend to take the stand in his own defense. That testimony is expected to come Tuesday after a long break for the Labor Day weekend. Attorneys could present closing arguments in the case as early as Wednesday.
Prosecutors rested their case-in-chief earlier this week, and several brief defense witnesses took the stand Thursday.
But first, Leinenweber denied the defendants’ requests to acquit them of all charges before the jury even gets the case.
The motions for judgment of acquittal, filed at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case on Tuesday, are routine in criminal trials and are almost always denied. At the very least, they are meant to preserve issues for a possible appeal down the road.
The only witness to be called by Kelly’s attorneys Thursday was Merry Green, who was involved in planning the Expo for Today’s Black Woman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Kelly accuser “Tracy” testified that she had encountered Kelly at such an expo in 1999, when she was 16.
However, Green testified that Kelly made a promotional appearance at the 2000 expo, not the 1999 event. In 2000, Tracy would have been 17, which is the age of consent under Illinois law.
To bolster her testimony, Green brought with her a printed-out photo of Kelly at the event in 2000, wearing a black hat and smiling as he signed an autograph for a female fan.
On cross-examination, Green acknowledged that while Kelly wasn’t a featured artist at the 1999 expo, he could still have attended. But security would have notified her if “an artist of that size” were there, she said, and she doesn’t recall being notified.
Thursday’s first witness was Christopher G. Wilson, who testified on behalf of McDavid. Wilson, a former Chicago police officer who now works on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s security detail, said he’s been McDavid’s friend for decades.
Back in 2001, McDavid told Wilson that Kelly was being blackmailed, and asked him to accompany Los Angeles-based private investigator Jack Palladino on a trip to Kansas City to interview a suspect in the blackmail and have him submit to a polygraph exam, Wilson testified.
Jurors previously heard from prosecution witness Charles Freeman that he met with Palladino at a Kansas City hotel after Kelly and McDavid reached out to him about recovering certain incriminating videotapes.
Wilson testified that McDavid was not present at the Kansas City meet-ups, contradicting Freeman’s testimony that McDavid was there.
On cross-examination, prosecutors emphasized that it was McDavid who hired Wilson for the job — not Palladino. And Wilson acknowledged that he did not witness any crimes, such as blackmail, on the trip. If he had, he would have been obligated to report it, since he was an off-duty police officer, he said.
Attorneys for McDavid also called to the stand Ronald Winters, who in the 2000s worked as a personal assistant to legendary criminal defense attorney Ed Genson. Genson represented Kelly during his Cook County case two decades ago; he died in 2020.
Winters testified that around 2007 a private investigator would drop off Kelly-related videotapes to Genson’s office, and Winters would play the tapes for Genson. All of them featured Kelly having sex with different women, none of whom appeared to be underage to Winters’ eyes.
Once, McDavid brought a videotape to Genson’s office. When Winters played it for his boss, he saw that it featured Kelly having sex with two women, one of whom appeared to be Kelly’s wife, Winters said.
McDavid’s defense has focused in part on an argument that Kelly wanted to recover one videotape because it featured his wife — not because it had child pornography on it. Prosecutors, however, allege that it showed Kelly having sexual contact with Lisa Van Allen and an underage “Jane.”
That tape — referred to as Video 4 in the indictment — has not been played for jurors. Prosecutors have said that’s because Kelly’s team successfully covered it up. The defense has asserted that’s because it never existed.
Brown’s attorneys, meanwhile, called former Kelly employee Tom Arnold, who worked for the Chicago Trax studio where Kelly recorded beginning in the late ’90s and started working for Kelly directly in 2003, he said.
The defense for Brown, who confirmed Thursday he will not testify, centers on the argument that he was such a low-level employee that he could not have had any knowledge of participating in a conspiracy. Arnold’s testimony appeared to be a way to tell jurors about the day-to-day functions of lower-rung employees without having to risk putting Brown on the stand.
As an employee, Arnold routinely handled large amounts of cash without necessarily knowing what the money was for, he testified. And it was “common knowledge” that drivers were never supposed to talk to Kelly’s female guests, he said.
Arnold also testified last year at Kelly’s racketeering trial in Brooklyn, memorably noting that he was docked a week’s pay since he booked a male tour guide — not a female one — at Disney World.
Testimony is slated to continue Tuesday morning. Defense attorneys have previously hinted at an eclectic hodgepodge of other potential witnesses, including disgraced attorney Michael Avenatti, former Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis and the former lead prosecutor on the case, Angel Krull, who exchanged emails with the star witness that defense attorneys suggested were inappropriate. But whether any of them will actually hit the witness stand remains to be seen.
Attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who is representing Kelly, told the judge Wednesday that she intends to call record company executive Cathy Carroll, who, according to testimony, introduced one of the Kelly’s alleged minor victims to the singer when the teen interned for her in the late 1990s. Bonjean’s cross-examination on the topic disputed that timeline vigorously, asserting that Kelly actually met the accuser after she had reached the legal age of consent.
McDavid’s attorneys also want to show jurors a set of documents from the now-deceased Palladino, who dealt with Freeman regarding the recovery of certain video footage.
While Freeman testified that he sought out the videos at Kelly’s behest, McDavid’s defense is aiming to paint Freeman as a greedy extortionist.
The memos they are seeking to admit describe McDavid’s “perennial requests for more money” and note that — since Freeman failed a polygraph — a payment was not for the return of a tape but instead “a quid pro quo for information concerning various disloyal members of R. Kelly’s ‘posse.’”
In one memorable passage, Palladino describes Freeman as “a sleazy bottom-feeder who whines endlessly apparently out of the belief that being extremely annoying is a winning negotiating strategy.”
Leinenweber has yet to rule on whether the records can be shown to the jury.
Prosecutors rested their case-in-chief Tuesday after calling some 25 witnesses over 10 days of testimony, including four women who said that Kelly had sexually abused them when they were underage. A fifth alleged minor victim mentioned in the indictment, was not called to testify for reasons that so far have not been explained.